Ahmed Alsoudani at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Ahmed Alsoudani/Matrix 165 at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Because September has been an odd month for me, due in part to a variety of factors including the shock of being back in the U.S. and adjusting the colder weather here, I’ve gotten behind on many things. One of them would have to be writing pieces that are for the blog and thus don’t have a deadline. The other week I attended the opening of a new show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT of paintings by Ahmed Alsoudani, an American born in Baghdad in 1975.

The exhibition consists of a series of works by Alsoudani, all of which are untitled, which are acrylic and graphite on canvas works. By refusing to title the work, one is forced to make sense of the work on its own terms, which is always a challenge in confronting abstract work and the multimedia aspect of them only makes it a bigger challenge.

The show’s catalog includes an essay by Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art at the Wadsworth. She opens her essay with the sentence “A visual encounter with a painting by Ahmed Alsoudani feels more like a visceral confrontation with the aftermath of violence.” And while I do feel that the statement is very correct I feel that it does place a limitation on the works’ subjects. Further the biographical details, make it clear that this work is a confrontation with war and its aftermath and make a point of associating Alsoudani with war and violence, in particular the Middle East conflicts with which Americans are familiar.

I feel uncomfortable with this. First of all, I do hesitate to draw too many conclusions between biography and art. I think that it’s possible to view work through such a lens but I think that seeing in such terms is inherently limiting. Because while I do think that Alsoudani’s work is about violence and its aftermath, about war and destruction, looking at it through the lens of, this is work created by an Iraqi about war prejudices how the audience reads the canvases.

Alsoudani avoids titling his work to prevent people from seeing things in certain ways. To allow the work to be open to interpretation and to let people find their own way through the imagery and associations.

For example, I’m uncertain about the meaning of Alsoudani’s use of graphite in the canvases. The figures of systems which have been rebuilt into what could be described as monstrous and grotesque but could also be the face of survivors, the way that in the face of violence and loss we often try to rebuild our lives and our selves, not always successfully. That’s not to say that such figures or systems are not destructive forces but there is a sadness at the heart of them, broken and incomplete, still alive through force of will or simply the result of habit.

In this sense the use of graphite takes on two possible meanings, that it either represents an incomplete aspect or it shows us what has been lost. It may represent what we paper over, unable to replace or rebuild that part of ourselves or lives and the ways we try to make do. Or it could be the way that we unconsciously try to replicate our lives as they were before even though we can’t, even if we may not know why. They’re ghost limbs of our lives as they used to be and now whether we’re aware of it or not, they can never be like that again.

In this sense the grotesque can be seen as a testament to survival. Also I can’t help but think of the paintings as very contemporary. Not because of the style or approach, necessarily, but I can’t help but feel that the imagery could not have been possible a generation ago. Not because he’s using lots of modern technology or shorthand that a contemporary audience would understand, but because I can’t help but feel that these figures and these systems are representative in many respects of how we live today.

I really enjoyed Alsoudani’s work–and I think there are a few canvases that would make a great addition to the museum’s permanent collection–but I can’t help but feel that the presentation of his work by the Atheneum did him and the paintings a small disservice. The room that most of them are exhibited it has bare white walls and really does provide the right environment. The essay is interesting if you've already spent time with the paintings but if you read it before spending time sitting with the art, it just diminishes them. There’s so much in those canvases; I think the best of them would have been better off speaking for themselves.

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